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6.13 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a convention to be courteous to the previous speaker, but I would be misleading the House if I were to be courteous to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Many of the issues that he has just waffled on about were debated hours ago. If he had been here for the opening speeches or for any of the debate, he would have heard that and not wasted the House’s time.

I want to talk about an issue that is very important to my constituents—that is why I am so passionate about it—and that is the Buncefield situation. The incident occurred nearly three years ago on 5 December 2005. Dacorum borough council is not the largest—or the smallest—local authority in the country, but it did fantastically well with that incident and subsequent events. However, many of the issues it has to deal with every day are too big and too complicated. Some are also delicate national issues, but that small local authority still has to deal with them every day.

One issue, which is plain common sense to anyone who understands planning, is that the existing safety planning—the control of major accident hazards regulations—for the depot, which was blown to smithereens by three explosions and the subsequent fire, still exists and can be used by the oil companies, should they wish to rebuild the depot. It is ludicrous in the 21st century that the legal safety regime allows the depot, which was obviously dangerous—the inquiry is still going on three years later—to be rebuilt.

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My local authority, like all local authorities, cares passionately about the safety of its residents. I am sure that all hon. Members care about that as well. It would love to say, “Let’s suspend the legal planning regulations for that depot at least until the end of the inquiry.” The inquiry is still going on, and many of us would like to see a subsequent public inquiry. However, the local authority is fearful of doing that, because litigation would be brought by the large oil companies almost immediately to attack it in the courts on the basis that it does not have the legal grounds to do so. That is where central Government—I have met the Minister for Local Government, who knows my views, and I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear this again—should come in and help local authorities. I am all for local authorities doing as much as they can and for devolving power to them, but when the issues become too big, too complicated and too dangerous, central Government have to help.

The regional authority has provided a degree of help. Frankly, I do not want help from the regional authority; I want central Government to say what is right and what is wrong for the safety of my constituents. The Government cannot continue to say that the powers have been devolved and that it is down to the borough council to get legal advice and to challenge three of the biggest oil companies in the world on the future safety of my constituents.

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who is responsible for housing, is on the Front Bench, and I welcome him to his new role—we have exchanged banter on many subjects over the years. Believe it or not, there is a proposal to build 12,000 houses around the Buncefield site. Everybody knows that the safety zone around the site—it is known as the consultation zone—must be expanded, yet English Partnerships and the Crown Estate, which own the land around the Buncefield site between the M1 and the boundary of Dacorum borough council, propose to build housing on the site.

As it happens, if there is going to be housing in and around my constituency, I would prefer to protect the green belt, which has been earmarked for development since the new town was built, so I would rather that the housing went on the land around the Buncefield site. In that case, we would need a lot of infrastructure, and there would be a lot of problems because the land crosses borough and district boundaries, but if the Government are going to force 12,000 houses on us, the houses should be put there. However, the housing should not be put there if Buncefield is allowed to be rebuilt.

The greatest concern for my constituents is that Buncefield will be rebuilt without learning from the mistakes of the past. There are pressures on the Government and the oil companies to rebuild Buncefield, because the aviation fuel is needed for Heathrow. The simple question that my constituents put to me is why is Buncefield needed for Heathrow, when Heathrow has operated successfully for the past three years without Buncefield? Other methods have been used, such as bringing in fuel from other depots.

Huge pressure is being exerted on a small borough authority that wants to do the best for its community. I am also under pressure, because I have attended meetings with large oil companies at which they said that the Buncefield site was a piece of national infrastructure
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that they must be allowed to rebuild. When I meet Ministers, speak to Departments and secure Adjournment debates, the responsibility is always pushed down to the local authority, which does not have the expertise, let alone the funding back-up, to take on the oil companies.

I have discussed Buncefield on many occasions in this House, but I will touch on a related point—only briefly, however, as I want my colleagues to have more time to speak than me. The point is the change in the rules on the business rate for an empty property. The Government have changed the rules so that if a business property is empty, 100 per cent. of the business rate is payable rather than 50 per cent. That may be right or that may be wrong—I do not want to get into the debate about whether it is right nationally—but it cannot be justified in and around the Maylands industrial debate, which is located at the side of Buncefield, where properties were blown to smithereens. Businesses were going to be charged 50 per cent. of the rate, which I still think is an abuse, but they will now be charged 100 per cent. of the business rate, while companies are still trying to decide whether it is safe for their employees to return to those buildings, if they were to decide to rebuild them.

It is morally wrong to penalise an organisation and for jobs to be lost in a constituency simply because there has been an arbitrary change that does not allow a local authority—which, as everybody knows, has no control over business rates—to say, “Hold on a second. We need to protect jobs.”

I ask the Minister to speak to his colleagues to ascertain whether there is any way for businesses in my constituency which have been devastated by the explosion—through no fault of their own whatever—to go back to at least the 50 per cent. rate while we assess the problems caused by the Buncefield incident.

6.20 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Patience has its own reward, and I am delighted to take part in this debate. May I declare an interest? It is well known that I am still a county councillor, having served for almost 12 years. I will cease to be one come May, because my constituency and electoral division are not coterminous, but I shall leave with great regret. I join the many who have said tonight that local government has a massively important role.

I want to take issue with the White Paper and its broad aims as stated by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in July this year. She said that the broad aims were twofold:

and to pass more power to the people, so that they feel that if they get involved, it will be worth their time and effort. She said that the key themes were about “power, influence and control” for local authorities and local people. I wish I could accept that with any real fervour, but the truth is that for many in my constituency, the very opposite of those words applies to the Government’s actions with regard to local government.

The poor Government funding formula under which local government in my area—especially my county council—has to labour year after year has massively reduced local power, undermined influence and detracted from good local government. The major reason is plainly
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the Government. The funding formula is a disaster for Northamptonshire. The ad hoc adjustments that the Government have made from time to time have proved a disaster for the county and they have meddled unfairly in the distribution of moneys that rightly should have come to Northamptonshire, but have gone to other areas of the UK, seemingly for political reasons. That makes my constituents angry; it is right that that should be said in this place. The shift of resources away from shire counties to other areas—Labour areas, dare I say—has been nothing short of disgraceful. My constituents are well aware of that, and I shall make sure that they continue to be so until the next election.

Let me give some facts to support that assertion. In 2006-07, per head of population, taxpayers paid £2,313 for health and social services in Scotland; for the same services in England, the taxpayer paid £1,915. When we take free prescriptions into account, the gap widens. Nobody can tell me that that is fair in any circumstances; my constituents would certainly not believe that it was. Let me proceed: taxpayers spent £2,109 per head on patients in Wales—more than £194 more than the same per capita payment in England. When we add the fact that the divergence within England is sizeable, we recognise that the funding from national Government for local services in my county and constituency is among the poorest across the board. Again, I say that that is unfair.

In July 2008, when the Institute for Public Policy Research looked into how the Barnett formula was put into effect, it found that Scotland was getting 11 to 18 per cent. too much money for the nation to be treated fairly and that England was getting 1 to 2 per cent. too little—an overall gap of 12 to 20 per cent. Nobody can tell me that that is not partly political. I have heard all the arguments about deprivation. Perhaps this is about the deprivation of future Labour candidates who might not win their seats, for there certainly has to be a better reason than deprivation for that great gap to have occurred.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. Is he aware that in the borough of Kettering, for every £4 that council tenants pay to the council, the council is forced to pay £1 to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not for redistribution to poor housing areas in other parts of the county but to be used in general Government expenditure? Does he agree that that is a stealth tax on council tenants?

Mr. Binley: I fear that it is. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that interjection. I well know how strongly he feels about the subject, and it is worth repeating many times.

We raised this matter with the then Minister for Local Government, who recognised that local funding for both revenue and capital can be “lumpy” in places. That is a gentle way of putting it; my constituents would put it in slightly harder terms. The formula does not take into account the proper population figures, as was recognised by the Minister some time ago when he told me that the Office for National Statistics had stated that there had been no growth in Northampton and the surrounding areas between 2001 and 2008. It might come as a surprise to him to learn that that figure was wrong. We have had 13,824 new houses built in that
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time, and I can assure him that they are not all empty—in fact, people love living in my part of the world and are queuing up to get there. Schooling is very good there, and that has added enormously to the population, but that is not recognised in the funding formula. I could go on about this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I know that you will be keen to end the debate at the time you have decided, and I do not want to be cut off in mid-flow.

Another matter that my constituents feel strongly about is the setting up of a quango to make major planning decisions affecting my area, thereby taking those decisions away from local authorities. The quango is called West Northamptonshire development corporation and, by golly, my constituents feel angry about it. Its job is to oversee 100,000 new dwellings and a commensurate increase of 200,000 new people by 2021. That underlines how my constituency and those of my neighbours are growing in population terms. By that time, we will need six upper schools, 18 primary schools, 400 additional hospital beds and 26 doctors’ surgeries, to say nothing of policing, leisure services, transportation, sewerage and water facilities—I could go on ad infinitum.

The growth is to be massive, so who is to guarantee the money for that big list of infrastructure requirements? The Government say that they will not do so, but hope to raise it from various means such as section 106 agreements and roof tax. The plans are quite vague. I do not need to tell the Government that house building has dropped off the edge of a cliff, not only in my constituency but in many other areas of the country, and the chances of getting that money are almost non-existent.

What we are going to see? Are we going to see more social housing? There is a need for it. Are we going to see council housing? I support council housing. I know, however, that we will not get the money via the means set out by the Government—from developers or from land taxes of whatever kind. That creates a sizeable concern for my constituents.

Furthermore, not only is the quango in control of planning decisions, but it takes decisions in total defiance of the stated will of the local population. I shall give two examples. There is a new development in the Grange Park area of my constituency. Planning permission was submitted, and all three district councils involved objected. The Environment Agency, Anglia Water and the Highways Agency all objected—I could go on and on, but we know the end of the story. Planning permission was given in spite of the fact that there were no guarantees for the schools, roads and policing that will be needed once those houses are built to help and sustain those who move into them.

All the councillors on the planning body advising the urban development corporation argued that an application for a wind turbine of 147 m on an industrial estate should be rejected. What has happened? The decision was deferred by the officers of the quango, who have every intention, I am told, of passing it on the next occasion. So much for local democracy. So much for encouraging people to take part in local government in a worthwhile and interesting fashion. Why should they when local issues are so deliberately disregarded, and when their role is so deliberately demeaned?

Fine words butter no parsnips, as my grandmother would say. I know that you understand the saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but perhaps many young people would not nowadays. The actions of our local quango
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make the point that the Secretary of State is happy to issue fine words, but the Government’s action tells us that they do not really mean very much. That is what my local constituents and other people in surrounding areas believe. So what should the Government do? Let me be bold—let them be bold, too—and see whether I can get a response from them. We should remove the planning function from the urban development corporation forthwith and restore it to the local authorities that were elected to carry out that function. The very fact that something does not suit a Government plan is one of the reasons why we have local government. It is one of the very reasons why we devolved power. That is what the Secretary of State says we need, but the Government’s actions deny their words.

Secondly, we should review the funding formula and simplify it to make it more robust. It should react to population increases in real time and ensure that the people I represent are treated fairly. They are not at the moment, and local government is suffering. When I was a finance portfolio holder, I had to cut £45 million and another £41 million in two consecutive budgets. Finally, we should scrap the Barnett formula and create a new one that more fairly distributes taxpayers’ money between the various regions of the UK, taking into account the factors that it needs to, but not allowing for the sort of political manipulations we have seen. The Government should stop the spin, act upon their fine words and restore faith to the system. If they did, my constituents would be delighted, but I fear that the Government are not going to have the courage to act in that way.

6.34 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) cheered us all up with his knockabout attack on the various follies and errors in Government policy, the debate has necessarily been rather sombre, given the background. It has also been thoughtful and constructive, and I want to respond to some of the main points.

I am sorry that the Minister is not in his place—doubtless, he will scurry in shortly—because I wanted to congratulate him on his elevation to the Privy Council. In the light of that good news, I expected many Government Back Benchers to flock in to support him. However, at the start of the debate, only two were present, neither of whom—how can I put it politely and diplomatically?—is famous for supporting every dot and comma of Government policy. Nevertheless, the Minister did his usual excellent job, in his polite, thoughtful and constructive way—and we are grateful for his comments about the Icelandic banks—of defending the indefensible.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) presented the argument, as I expected, for local income tax. To put it mildly, we do not agree with her. We do not believe that, at this point in the economic cycle, with a downturn looming, we should impose more taxes on hard-working families. However, I am determined to agree with her about something, and I agreed with her intervention about IN35, one of the indicators that measures PVE—preventing violent extremism. She was right to point out that the Government should ensure that money does not go to extremists, but that local councils should have the maximum flexibility to use PVE money as they want.

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The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who has not returned, made a doughty defence of his local interest. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) asked me for a commitment on neighbourhood renewal money. I am sorry to disappoint him, but I am not in a position today to write on the Floor of the House our general election manifesto on every pot of money that the Government produce. I know that he will be disappointed, but I am afraid that he must live with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made, as always, a polished and assured speech, and demolished the various follies of unitaries. He made a telling point about parish councils, which do a job that the Government seem to want to reinvent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) reverted, as one might expect, to the Buncefield fire, a subject that he has raised many times. It proved again, were proof needed, that he is capable of phenomenal hard work on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) brought all his council experience to bear—I am sorry to hear that he is finally to leave his local government post—on various aspects of Government policy with which he disagrees.

I want to ask a few questions about community cohesion, especially about the way in which the Department perceives the role of local government in helping prevent violent extremism—an aspect of local authorities’ work that we have not discussed so far. I will make three brief points about that.

First, it is wrong to assume that violent extremism is the monopoly of any particular ethnic or religious group. It is worth noting that, in the past year, a neo Nazi from Yorkshire was sentenced for serious offences under terrorism legislation for designing violence to be committed specifically against Muslims.

Secondly, we must recognise, however, that the main threat to public safety—to Muslims and non-Muslims alike—comes from those who would exercise violence in the name of Islam. I would like quickly to make the point that it is not often appreciated that Muslims face a particular difficulty, because the aim of al-Qaeda is to drive out mainstream Muslim leadership and replace it.

Finally, many people talk about the causes of violent extremism and give different reasons for it—the failures of multiculturalism, foreign policy, discrimination, and so on. The point is that local government has to pick up those issues and deal with them. They are not just a matter for national Government. I appreciate that the Minister will not have time to answer all my points, so I would be grateful if he indicated that he will write to me about any that are outstanding.

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